Running enthusiast and pro-lifer Julia Webb, 36, set a world record Nov. 24 for fastest time finishing a half-marathon while pushing a baby in a stroller — her 10-month-old daughter Gabby was part of the victory. Even more impressive, Webb’s time of 1:21:23 won the women’s half-marathon overall at the Route 66 race in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
Webb, a committed Catholic, stay-at-home mom and elite steeplechaser, won the race wearing a LIFE Runners jersey. She joined the organization earlier this year. With nearly 14,000 members in 39 nations, LIFE Runners is the world’s largest pro-life running team.
LIFE Runners’ founder, Pat Castle, and organization chaplain Bishop Thomas Paprocki of Springfield, Illinois, also participated in the half-marathon.
Webb’s winning time is one minute, 6 seconds faster than the record set in April by Lauren Stroud of Lake Jackson, Texas, and just over a minute and a half faster than her previous personal best, an unofficial record set in 2016 in Chicago but not recognized by Guinness World Records because her entire run wasn’t filmed. This time, Webb’s husband, American mile record-holder Alan Webb, videoed her whole race. Alan Webb is also a LIFE Runners member and a recent convert to Catholicism. The Webbs are now waiting for verification of the record from Guinness World Records, which is expected to take several months.
The couple married in 2010. In addition to Gabby, they are parents to Joanie, 7, and Paula, 4. In August they moved from Beaverton, Oregon, where they have an on-site truck repair business, to Little Rock, Arkansas, where Alan Webb coaches cross-country and track at the University of Arkansas-Little Rock. Julia Webb recently spoke to the Register by phone about her faith, her recent win and what’s next. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.
What was your reaction when you realized you had won?
I knew if I ran my goal time, I’d be the overall top female runner. What was a surprise was how strong I felt from the start and through the whole race. I’d gone in really doubting myself the week before. I had just returned from a trip to Portland, Oregon, with my three kids alone and was weary of traveling again. I asked LIFE Runners for prayers. They also helped me a lot with my children. I felt their prayers were being answered as I was running.
Mile after mile, pushing the stroller I thought: “This is not just me. God has given me extra pep — I should just be sleeping right now!” I felt so confident the night before the race. We went to Mass with all the other racers. I just felt at peace — to let go and let God. I had that same peaceful, confident feeling last year before my [26.2 mile] debut at the Eugene Marathon. Unknowingly, I was five weeks pregnant then. I went to Mass and confession the night before. I felt God was saying: “You’re fine. Don’t worry. I’ll help you.” [There Webb qualified for the 2020 U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials to be held in Atlanta in February.]
Tell me about your faith journey.
I was not always a “model” Catholic. I had a period of rebellion from middle school through high school and into college. My mom always prayed for me; she was so devout. Everything you would not want your teen daughter to do, I was doing. I had a big conversion in college. That was God’s hand at work.
What led to your conversion?
My college running team. We were not at a Christian school, but I had so many teammates who had deep faith. They encouraged me in my faith. I thought, “All the sin I’m involved in is not making me happy.” I knew the only way I could be happy was to confess my sins and drop all the bad habits. I joined Athletes in Action. We would have prayerful talks and try to grow in holiness as we were running. We were able to lead our team in prayer before races. It was awesome to have that support and fellowship. I started going to daily Mass and praying the Rosary daily.
How and when did you get into competitive running?
The summer before my senior year in high school I ran a 5K. I was wearing my basketball shoes, I hadn’t trained, and I got second place! I thought, “Okay, I’ll tryout for cross-country.” I was able to keep up with the team at the first practice, which was five miles. I thought, “That was it? That was the practice?” I fell in love with the sport of running. I love how the work ethic equals results. There’s no politics — if you push hard and run fast, you will do amazing things. I ended up making state my first season in cross-country. Then I ran in college four seasons at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse and won the NCAA III title in steeplechase. I was bummed when I graduated. I was determined to not stop competing. I moved to Indianapolis, where I met my husband. He was at the top of his game and competing in a lot of the same races. He was winning; I was not! After we married, we moved around a lot, but running was the one thing I continued to do at the highest level possible. I never lost my passion for it.
What led you to join LIFE Runners?
I was getting burned-out running for teams that didn’t have a deep meaning, so I decided to join LIFE Runners this summer. My husband wasn’t Catholic when we married. He was always Christian — he was humble and had the biggest heart. He had a conversion to the faith in late 2015 or 2016. He is now super Catholic and is a role model for me. He pushes me, challenges me to be the best I can be in my faith. I believe life begins at conception, and I thought this would be a great cause to run for. I found LIFE Runners online and sent them a message that said, “I’d love to be on your team.” Thanks to my husband, his boldness and his faith, I took a step forward to live out my faith with my hobby.
What is the purpose of LIFE Runners?
LIFE Runners is a group of runners and walkers who want to be a witness for the pro-life movement. Wearing the jersey is required; running is optional. The jersey says, “Remember the unborn.” I thought, “People will think I’m crazy, but I’m going to do this — I need to take a stand and not be so passive.” If you have five people or more, you can form a chapter. We meet monthly, have prayer and do walks. A lot of chapters meet outside abortion clinics to pray. We pray for each other. We have an online presence. Every time there’s an article about my recent record, it’s nice, because more people learn about LIFE Runners.
What role did LIFE Runners play in your recent victory?
One of the guys who’s awesome, Matt Pohren, said, “Hey, I’ll run with you.” He could have run his own race. I said, “Just keep me on pace.” Running by yourself is a bit tougher than running with someone. The No. 1 thing they did for me was pray. Their support let me know that I wasn’t just doing this for my own good, which elevated my level of running and gave LIFE Runners a shoutout.
Did the LIFE Runners team experience persecution at the competition?
You can feel when someone is not on board with the pro-life message on the jersey when you’re walking and running among the general public. If I don’t pray for confidence before I wear the jersey, I just want to hide under a different sweatshirt.
The LIFE Runners were told [by some event directors]: “You have to stay in your booth. Take down your banners. Lose your shirt.” Things like that. The discomfort is worth it — someone needs to stand up to stop abortion. [In a Facebook post, Castle shared his and Bishop Paprocki’s reaction to the persecutors. To the booth command, Castle responded, “The other booths are outside (their booth boundaries).” To the banner order, Bishop Paprocki responded, “We have a First Amendment right to be here with this message. … We will move if the police ask us.” Castle said the police never asked. He urged LIFE Runners to pray for their persecutors, as exhorted in Matthew 5:44.]
What is it you most appreciate about your Catholic faith?
It gives you a structure for being a human. It’s a blueprint for how to get to heaven. Alan and I feel our marriage is to help us, our family and others get to heaven. Since his conversion we feel we’re really progressing toward that. We have a love of Mass, Eucharistic adoration and the Rosary. We get so many blessings and gifts, not just eternal gifts, but here and now. We’re so thankful for our faith.
What role does faith play in your fitness training?
I try to have intentions for my runs. I’m always pushing myself, trying to achieve my best results. To get there you have to do a lot of hard workouts. There’s some I don’t want to do. When I feel that way I think, “Who can I pray for, offer this for?” When I’m channeling my faith into my running is when I feel I get the most out of myself. I feel God is smiling upon that mile saying, “Yes, we’re going to do this together.” I pray a lot when I run. Now that I can be a witness wearing the LIFE Runner jersey, it’s the whole package.
The upcoming Olympic trials will be just your second full marathon and your first Olympic tryout. What is your goal for that competition?
To run my best, especially to represent LIFE Runners. About 400 women have qualified for the trials. I barely snuck in. To make the Olympics team you have to be among the top three [finishers]. I may be in the top 100. After the race we’ll see if I want to get back into track or if I want to continue to do marathons. Also, it’s up to God. If we happen to have another child in the next couple of years, that’s a factor. For now, I’ll take it one month at a time and run the best I can in February.
Roxanne King writes from Denver.